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Element Theory (ET), as proposed in Kaye et al. (1988 [1985], 1990) gave rise to a rich literature devoted to the characterization of elements, their use within syllabic structure and their possible interactions (Angoujard 1997; Charette 1988, 1990, 1991; Harris 1990, 1994; Harris and Lindsey 1995; Scheer 1996). In parallel to Government Phonology, some other frameworks – Particles Phonology (Schane 1984), Dependency Phonology (Anderson and Ewen 1987) and its variant Radical CV Phonology (Hulst 1999, 2005, ms; Hulst and Weijer to appear) – developed the same idea of smaller phonological units whose interaction is constrained by specific operations. This literature explores the possibilities of applying elements to the analysis of specific languages and phonological phenomena.

Elements became a central topic in Phonology starting with Kaye et al. (1988 [1985], 1990). Prior to that, the units used in phonology were binary features, which were mostly based either on articulatory (Chomsky and Halle 1968) or on acoustic properties (Clements 1985; Halle et al. 2000; Jakobson et al. 1952; Jakobson and Halle 1956; Jakobson and Lotz 1949). One of the leading characteristics of elements lies in their direct phonetic mapping unlike traditional features. This idea is not new: the three primes |A|, |I| and |U| mapping into the three vowels [a, i, u] already appear in Anderson and Jones (1974). Since then, it was adopted and further extended by Government Phonology: “[…] the ultimate constituents of phonological segments are themselves autonomous, independently pronounceable units.” (Kaye et al. 1988 [1985] : 306). Therefore, “each and every subsegmental prime, not just those involved in the representation of vocalic contrasts, is independently interpretable.” (Harris and Lindsey 1995 : 2).

The relationship between ‘mental representation’ of speech sound and its phonetic exponent leads to two conflicting views of the phonetic module in the modular approach of the grammar. The one to one mapping (Backley 2011; Harris 1990; Harris and Lindsey 1995) excludes it since elements are phonetically interpretable at all stages of the derivation. It implies strict match between a phonological representation and its phonetic exponent. No ‘slack’ is allowed in Scheer’s term (Scheer 2014). However, a wide range of phonology-phonetics mismatches (i.e. the same phonetic forms but different mental representation or vice versa) suggest that physical aspects of speech sound have nothing to do with phonological objects (Kaye 2005; Scheer 2014). This is expressed by the term ‘phonological epistemological principle’ (Kaye 2005). Phonological objects being completely independent from acoustic signal, they are not obviously designed to fit into the phonetic exponent. This job is carried out by the phonetic module. Whether only phonological patterns or ‘linguistically relevant acoustic patterns’ – the so-called phonetic signature of elements – count is at the heart of de ning elementary representations. On what bases should elements be established?

More recently, Backley (2011) published a handbook to Element Theory whose main aim is to provide an introduction and a general view of elements and a state of the art description of their use. This work is to be considered as an important step in the ET research program.

In this conference, we aim at extending this program and provide new lines of research concerning ET. The main goal is to reassess theoretical and empirical questions which have been implicitly taken for granted, with particular attention paid to:

  • the total number of primes and the eligibility of a set of elements,
  • the segregation between C elements (i.e. primes suitable in a consonantal position) and V elements,
  • the head-dependent relationship,
  • the asymmetry between |A| vs. |I, U| and |I| vs. |U|,
  • the possible operations on primes.

The number of primes used to characterise segments varies according to authors. Some new elements can be introduced in order to account for specific phenomena (e.g. |B| for labiality and roundness in contrast with |U| for velarity (Scheer 1999)). However, ET is initially motivated by the desire to restrict the amount of phonological units and their possible interactions in order to avoid over-generation. In this sense, Kaye et al. (1988 [1985], 1990) introduced the charm and lines (i.e separate tiers that determine which elements can merge in the fusion operation). In the same perspective, given the close relation between voice and nasality, Nasukawa (1997) proposes to use the same element |N| to express both properties (the contrast lying in the head vs. non-head status of the prime in a given expression) and thus makes the use of |L| redundant. More recently, the Contour-based Model proposed by Carvalho (2002, 2008, 2014) as well as Government Phonology 2.0 (GP 2.0 – Pöchtrager (2006) and Pöchtrager and Živanović (2010)) discuss the need for specific primes for consonants: following autosegmental phonology, structure and melody are independent, and segments – whether they are vocalic or consonantal – should be using the same prime inventory. In other words, the properties that are peculiar to consonants should be expressed differently than in the melodic content. Consequently, along the same lines as Jensen (1994), they propose to encode laryngeal properties such as aspiration and occlusion directly in syllabic structure.

Unlike binary features, elements make it possible to see segments as organised sets: Kaye et al. (1988 [1985], 1990) introduce headedness to mark the prominence of one element within the combination of various primes and to allow more contrast between segments containing the same primes. Heads can also be found in works such as Backley (2011) and Backley and Nasukawa (2009a,b), where elements that are not combined can also be heads. More recently, frameworks such as GP 2.0 and Precedence-free Phonology (Nasukawa 2011, 2014, 2015, 2016; Onuma 2015) propose to inject more structure within segments in a X-bar fashion, making segments even more organised. Heads are still present and serve a more functional role: they support the entire segmental projection and host the melody. ‘Phonetic prominence’ can be achieved in various ways: while in GP 2.0, as in Schane (1984), |A| can be reduplicated to reinforce its phonetic involvement (Pöchtrager 2016), Precedence-free Phonology uses baseline elements as segment roots, whose quality determines the main colour of segments.

The status of |A| as a melodic prime gives rise to some debates: on the one hand, Pöchtrager (2016) and Pöchtrager and Živanović (2010) point out the peculiar behaviour of |A| (namely the lack of |A|-colouring) and the fact that segments containing |A| seem to provide extra room to flanking segments. Consequently they propose to represent |A| as emptiness (i.e. lexically empty structure). On the other hand, some phenomena such as r-linking (Backley 2011) and pharyngealisation are analysed as a |A| spreading, which supports the melodic prime status of |A|. Regarding |I| and |U|, there seems to be a discrepancy: while palatalisation is quite common across languages (i.e. |I| transmission), labialisation, or |U| spreading, is much more rare. Even more surprisingly, |I| and |U| both provoke harmony, but rarely both at the same time (Kaye 2001; Pöchtrager 2010).

The above mentioned topics are open and we invite the participants to provide thoughts and criticism about the general axis we propose. There are obviously more questions that can be addressed regarding ET and we encourage any contribution that falls within this scope.


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